Spicy Grilled Polenta Crostini with Roasted Peppers and Olives

These are very flavorful and quite impressive appetizers. They certainly catch the eyes with their bright colors. The topping of roasted peppers with added orange zest and mint provide a nice contrast to hot from the oven, crispy and spicy polenta Crostini. They are wonderful served with other Italian dishes.

Makes 24

For the polenta:

  • 8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups medium ground cornmeal
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan
  • Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing over polenta squares before grilling

For the pepper topping:

  • 3 large red bell peppers
  • 1/3 cup chopped Kalamata olives
  • 1/3 cup chopped Manznilla olives
  • Zest of 1 small orange
  • 2 tbsp fresh orange juice
  • 1 heaped tsp of finely chopped fresh basil
  • 1 heaped tsp of finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ tsp Kosher salt or to taste
  • 1 green onion, thinly sliced

Make the polenta:

Line a 10×15-inch baking pan with foil, lightly oil the foil. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, rosemary, pepper, and salt. Sauté for a minute, stirring. Add the chicken stock, cream, and milk and bring to a boil. Take off the heat and add the cornmeal in a slow stream stirring constantly with a whisk. Return to the stove and cook over low heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 20-30 minutes. Take it off the heat, stir in the Parmesan. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface with a wet offset spatula. Cool on a rack. Then cover and refrigerate until firm, for a couple of hours or up to overnight.

Transfer the polenta slab into a cutting board and cut into 24 squares using a sharp knife. Wipe the knife between cuts as needed.

Place an oven rack 4 inches from the heating element and preheat the broil to high.

Transfer the squares onto a large baking sheet, lined with oiled foil. Brush the top of the polenta squares with more olive oil. Grill the squares for about 3 minutes, until they develop the crust and become golden brown. Remove them from the oven and carefully (they are hot) turn on the other side. Brush again lightly with olive oil and grill for another 3 minutes.

Now they are ready to be served.

If you assemble a lot of dishes at last minute, it might be a bit stressful to grill and flip all these polenta squares right before serving, in front of your guests. And these appetizers for sure have to be served hot from the oven. I found the way to ease the last minute preparation fuss by grilling one side of the polenta squares first, then turning them over and leaving them on a baking sheet on a cooling rack for up to an hour. After your guests have arrived, grill another side for just 3-4 minutes. That’s enough time to heat them through and form a nice golden brown crust. Transfer to a serving platter.

Make the pepper topping:

Roast the bell peppers. Place an oven rack 4 inches from the grill. Preheat the broil to high. Line a baking sheet with foil. Arrange the peppers on the prepared sheet and grill, turning often until blackened and blistered on all sides, about 15 minutes. Transfer the peppers into a large bowl, cover with foil and let steam. It will loosen the skin from the flesh, making them easier to peel.

After the peppers have cooled, peel off the skins. Remove the ribs and seeds. Do not rinse the peppers under water, use paper towels to blot excess juices. Coarsely chop the peppers. Transfer to a medium glass bowl. Add the rest ingredients except the green onions. Stir with a fork. Adjust the seasoning to your taste. Let stand at least 30 minutes at room temperature or up to overnight in the refrigerator to blend the flavors. If refrigerated, bring to room temperature before serving. When ready to serve, stir three-fourth of the green onion into the peppers.

The topping is really the best when prepared a night before, the flavor is well developed and more complex.

Assemble the appetizers:

Top each square of hot grilled polenta with generous 1 tbsp of the topping. Sprinkle with the remaining green onion, and serve right away.